The bridge is a raised area from which a string puppet (string marionette) or rod marionette is operated. The height of a bridge may vary from a few centimetres to over a metre, extending the full width of the stage which is usually attached to it. The hidden performers lean with their puppet’s control over a rail just above waist height, its purpose being to ensure a safe and comfortable operating position. The height of the bridge is dictated by the length of the strings or rods or, conversely, the length of the strings is dictated by the height of the bridge which is usually fixed.
Where the height of the bridge is over a metre the performers’ feet will be above the level of the heads of the marionettes. This allows for a deep stage where the scenic action can continue upstage of the bridge, when the puppeteers will lean over the rail at the back of the bridge.
A high bridge is most common with larger marionette companies which may even build a second bridge downstage, behind the proscenium arch. Here the performers will be facing upstage. The workable depth of a marionette stage is obviously limited by the stretch of the performers’ arms, but the use of a second bridge increases the practicable depth of the staging and allows for an increased area of movement for the marionettes.
There are alternative constructions: examples are companies that use three bridges or bridges that can part in the middle to allow a marionette to go more easily from upstage to downstage. Hydraulic constructions allow a bridge to adjust its height.
Not every marionette performer uses a bridge. Many stand on the same floor level as the puppet. In Palermo, Sicily, the pupi are operated from the wings as well as from behind on a rostrum, allowing the puppeteers to lean over the back of the acting area. The width of the stage dictates the need to pass the puppet from one performer to another, their hands in full view. A similar arrangement exists in several towns of Belgium, including the classic poesje theatres of Antwerp, often situated in cellars with not enough headroom for a bridge.
Today, in cabaret work, for example, the bridge is dispensed with. In film and television work the bridge may be considerably more than a metre in height so as to allow an uninterrupted view of the scenic environment.
Examples of Artists Using the Bridge
There is no norm for the height of a bridge, as stated above. It is regulated by tradition, a stage’s layout, or the rigour of the scenography. Puppets can be gigantic like those of Bil Baird made for the vast Radio City Music Hall of New York, where his show involved the manipulation of a 13-metre dragon that arched and coiled itself around a small human dancer. The bridge was 20 metres long, with two others which extended forward (at right angles?). The dragon was designed so that it corresponded to the motion and movements of the puppeteers, one operating the head and neck, another controlling the middle of the body, and the third operating the tail. In this case, the puppeteers must have needed unhindered access to the bridge from the back of the stage and both wings. The puppet’s controls were suspended, when waiting to be used, on the sides, hidden by frames or lateral curtains. When detached from the waiting position, the puppets were able to enter and exit via the wings without obstruction.
Special scenic devices can take very complex forms in fixed theatre halls for particular shows, above all to allow the smooth movement of the puppets and for the camera angles used in television and cinema sets. Thus, for his television programme, Peter and the Wolf, which included string puppets, Bil Baird had a forest set built in the studio, over which a total of three bridges were suspended 3 metres from the ground from the trees which comprised the set. In his international tours, Baird used a scenic structure consisting of a large platform placed on trestles raised 2.5 metres above the ground in order for the action to be fully visible to the public. The puppet stage (a 25-centimetre tall dais/raised platform), was placed on the large platform with the visible puppeteers standing behind on a further rostrum, about 60 centimetres high, behind drapes about 1.8 metres high, which marked the back of the stage and masked the players to elbow height. In other shows, the American puppeteer could be perched 12 metres up.
In 1965, for Dezsö Szilágyi’s Petruska (Petrushka) staged at the Budapest Bábszínház (Budapest Puppet Theatre), Ivan Koos designed a stage set on three levels. The first level, downstage, was for flat painted representations of the head and shoulders of spectators in a fairground, made only to swivel their head. The second level, upstage and above this crowd, a small marionette theatre was situated, on whose stage played the characters, Petrushka, the Moor, and the Ballerina. The third level, furthest away, towering over the stage and the audience, was a masked actor, in the role of the old “magician-puppeteer”, crowning the whole by attempting (and failing) to control his puppets over the back of the stage.
In Brussels, the Toone theatre puppeteers perform on the same level as the puppets. They manipulate from the sides, hidden by lateral folding screens, which they close during a scene change. Only the narrator is elevated (at present he is Toone VIII or Nicolas Géal), who produces all the voices and whose head is visible through a circular window at the top right of the puppet stage’s façade.
Sometimes, the puppeteers are elevated a mere 20 centimetres, as was the case for Séraphin’s rod marionettes in 1859 performed at the Passage Jouffroy (Jouffroy Arcade) in Paris.
Sicilian rod marionettes (see Pupi) of Catania and Palermo are operated either from the ground, or from a bridge or rostrum, depending on the troupe.
At the end of the 1920s, the American marionette performer Frank Paris and the British Eric Bramall were probably the first to forego the use of a stage and thus a bridge, manipulating their string puppets on the floor or stage beside them (see Cabaret, Music Hall, Variety Theatre and Vaudeville). Likewise, operators of string puppets from Rajasthan in India (see Kathputli ka Khel) perform standing on the ground at the same level as their puppets. The Rajasthani puppeteers are hidden from the audience by a tent-like puppet stage made of cloth mounted onto, originally, a charpai rope bed frame, or, more recently, on bamboo poles that have an upper front cloth on the proscenium arch, cloth arches, and a backcloth, with a scalloped pelmet at the front, which bears the evocative name, “taj mahal”.
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